The best operatic performance I’ve seen this year took place not in Los Angeles, Long Beach or Costa Mesa, but in Santa Barbara. There, since 1947, the Music Academy of the West has topped its summer festival with some kind of staged production involving the services of the Academy‘s students, faculty and an occasional guest. I didn’t think I‘d ever enjoy opera more than at last summer’s production of Handel‘s Rodelinda, and perhaps I won’t. But the Ariadne auf Naxos two weekends ago came close.
Richard Strauss for people who don‘t like Richard Strauss: Ariadne is a treacherous bag of tricks, a series of stylistic collisions that plays for laughs but also touches upon profound matters of artistic conscience. Read the history of great artworks purposefully mutilated to gain public acceptance — Mozart adding laff numbers to Don Giovanni to appease the Viennese; Orson Welles acquiescing to murderous cuts in his Magnificent Ambersons — and you know the miseries visited on the Composer in the Prologue, who must make room in his Ariadne tragedy for the troupe of comedians the patron has also engaged. In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, the Composer appears only in the Prologue, but in Santa Barbara, stage director Chas Rader-Shieber had the good idea of leaving him onstage during the ensuing opera as well, silently delighting in the tragic moments, tortured during the rest: a small point perhaps, but an intelligent and likable touch.
The production was on the cheap but blissfully adequate — no rocky and cavernous Island of Naxos itself, merely what might have been the rich patron‘s own parlor, with enough doors and mirror panels to allow for entrances and exits. Randall Behr, whose take on other Strauss operas I have been known to deplore, led a beautifully balanced performance, reaching deep into Strauss’ iridescent score to shape lovely, soaring melodic lines, pacing the work so that even the final Bacchus-Ariadne duet, which can be torture, didn‘t overstay its welcome this once. Liesel Fedkenheuer was the passionate, extraordinarily moving Composer; Karen Wierzba sailed with remarkable ease in the stratosphere of Zerbinetta’s music; Heidi Bieber‘s Ariadne, with a couple of slightly strained moments, was only one or two points below this level. And old Heinz Blankenburg, whose fan I have been since his 1957 Harlequin in a San Francisco Opera Ariadne, vested the spoken role of the Major-Domo with exactly the right insidious mix of sleaze and pomposity.
Apropos sleaze . . . Only a couple of choked phrases from under Zubin Mehta’s baton and you know that in PBS‘s new video of La Traviata, which turns up Sunday night on KCET, the eloquent Verdian breath is going to be in short supply. This is another of those gadgety productions, like the Roman travelogue in the Tosca of a couple of years ago or the Aida filmed at the pyramids. This one takes place all over Paris: four scenes, four venues; I can’t wait for a Fidelio on Alcatraz. Heroine and father-in-law do their big scene while chasing each other through the woods around Versailles; the party scenes are so populated with ephebes that you expect Oscar and Bosie to show up in matching bath towels.
Argentinean tenor Jose Cura is the splendid Alfredo, a role ideal for the smooth, elegant middle of his voice. Russia‘s Eteri Gvazava, the Violetta, comes in under the pitch now and then, but I like the somewhat dark quality that works particularly well in her scenes with the elder Germont. He, alas, is the veteran Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, now 76, given to eyeball rolling to cover the notes he no longer commands. His Act 2 cabaletta has been excised, the better part of wisdom in this case. One of the two verses of Alfredo’s often-cut “Oh mio rimorso” has been left in, filmed with the camera about two inches from his nose. Has it never occurred to camerafolk that the human mouth while singing is seldom if ever a thing of beauty?
Do we need another Don Giovanni? Well, yes; I suppose that in one sense we do and always will. Even so, my current Schwann lists 20, and the one I most often retire to is the earliest of these, Glyndebourne 1936.
The latest, on Virgin Classics, is a live recording from last year‘s Aix-en-Provence festival, staged — for what that information can be worth on an audio release — by Peter Brook. Daniel Harding, the very young — 23 at the time — conductor, who has been here with the Philharmonic and at Ojai, leads what comes over as a 23-year-old’s performance. The music zips by; the singers — Peter Mattei as the Don, Veronique Gens as Elvira, Mark Padmore as Ottavio — look very young in their head shots, although no bios are included. But, as they say, speed kills, and there are times — the concerted moments most of all — when the subtlety of Mozart‘s miraculous settings of Lorenzo da Ponte’s words becomes gibberish. I have the feeling that everyone involved in this undeniably high-spirited enterprise will beg on their knees, five years from now, for another go at Don Giovanni. The question will be, will Virgin, or any other record company, still be around to grant that chance?
Meanwhile, back at the Pass: In 1993 I wrote of Enrique Diemecke, after a regular Philharmonic subscription concert, as a “flashy but self-indulgent conductor, out to establish his individuality with fancy effects and distortions unrelated to the music,” and his latest Latino program at the Hollywood Bowl didn‘t inspire me to eat those words. And now, I hear, he’s up for consideration for the Long Beach Symphony job.
Smitten with what we might as well call Virus Mauceri (except that John Mauceri‘s audience pep talks are far better), Diemecke felt called upon to slather nearly every one of the works on his program — including Revueltas’ substantial and serious Homage to Garcia Lorca — with a smear of “Look, Ma” cutenesses that included mucho jabberwock (some of it factually erroneous as well) and, during one piece, some deep knee bends that just looked stupid on a middle-aged conductor in formal getup. If there was anything noteworthy about his stint from a musical point of view, it was simply his remarkable feat in making Ravel‘s Bolero dull. Where were those helicopters when we needed them?